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Meet the silent thief of eyesight

R. Sujatha
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Recently while I was waiting for my appointment with the ophthalmologist, my eyes fell on the photograph of the Taj Mahal. Below the photograph that was darkened in the centre was printed ‘Don't worry'. Next to it was another photograph with the Taj in all its glory, viewed presumably after treatment.

Now, if you went to your ophthalmologist with a complaint that you could not see the peripheral movements and that you have to turn your head around, or that you have tunnel like vision your doctor would probably not say “Don't worry.” Instead, you might be told that you have glaucoma. And it is worrisome. For, glaucoma is a group of eye diseases which lead to gradual loss of sight.

Glaucoma is known as the ‘silent thief of sight'. A person with glaucoma remains asymptomatic until much of the sight is lost. When the tear gland doesn't drain as it should, it presses on the optic nerve. The nerve is behind the eye and transmits information to the brain about the objects in front of us. The loss of sight is very gradual. Most people do not realise it until much of the sight is lost. By then it is too late.

“We can only preserve what is left of the optic nerve,” said Ronnie George, director of research at Sankara Nethralaya. His team studied around 3,800 patients in and around Chennai for a period of 10 years between 2001 and 2011 and found that about five percent of them had glaucoma. Of this, five percent were blind in at least one eye. Less than 10 percent of the population screened had been diagnosed and only 12 percent of those screened knew about the disease.

If you think this is a small sample study, Dr. George dispels any misconceptions you might have.

The findings of the study can be extrapolated to the population. “The findings in any city would be similar,” Dr. George told me. “One in eight persons over the age of 40 in the population is at risk for the disease,” he said.

Given the nature of the disease, for which there is no cure yet, the week March 11 to 17 was dedicated to raising awareness about glaucoma, the second leading cause of blindness.

Awareness is so low that only 30 people attended a programme organised last Tuesday by the regional institute of ophthalmology in Egmore a primary health centre in Porur. A screening camp was also held to identify people with glaucoma, said K. Maragadham, head of glaucoma services at the institute. “We explained about anti-glaucoma drops and told them that the drops would be provided free of cost to patients at the hospital. The drops help ease the pressure on the nerve, thus preventing progression of the disease,” Dr. Maragatham explained.

The Government Ophthalmic Hospital, which is attached to the institute, gets around 150 to 200 new registrants every month besides the 350 to 400 patients who come for follow up. “If we get 100 patients in our outpatient department nearly 40 will require screening as we suspect they might be heading for glaucoma,” Dr. Maragatham said.

The institute has planned to conduct screening programmes in Chennai Schools as it is the only way to find children who have glaucoma.

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